I’m pretty passionate about women needing to embrace their own sexuality without shame and without regard to male sexual desire, and today I’m over at The Friendly Atheist to review Dannah Gresh and Dr. Juli Slattery’s book Pulling Back the Shades, their Christian response to 50 Shades of Grey.

This [is] a pervasive problem in Christian relationship books aimed at women: the assumption that female sexuality begins with the initiation of a woman into the world of male sexuality. This can be through abuse, rape, regretful premarital sex, or happy married sex, but it always starts and ends with a penis. This gets taken to such an extreme that even masturbation is condemned if it uses any sort of imagination or fantasy to speed things along — that would be making oneself dependent on a man other than your husband, even if he’s fictional. Which would be cheating, and a misuse of sex (by their definition of the act).

Gresh is known for her interpretation of the Hebrew references to sex in the Old Testament (yada, according to her) as “to know, to be deeply respected,” and she explains that this is a sign of how sex was intended by God for marriage, where you can have that sort of intimate knowledge of your partner. She further asserts that sex always transcends the physical act, which is how she explains that cheating is wrong (again: no mention of consent here) and why she believes that no-strings-attached sexual encounters are also wrong.

She concludes this little explanation by saying:

“Erotica places undue emphasis on the physical and disables your ability to connect emotionally.”

I find this hard to believe, seeing as erotica is entirely based on the imaginative capabilities of a sexual human being to use fantasy for arousal, and doesn’t require anything physical at all. The focus in the fantasy, I agree, is physical rather than emotional, but can’t it also follow that heightened sexual awareness can help improve intimacy in the bedroom and increase emotional connection during sex? I suspect that Slattery and Gresh both have trouble connecting their own experiences of moments where they owned their sexuality to themselves as whole human beings in positive ways. The over-emphasis on the spiritual and intellectual understandings of sexuality leave the physical out in the cold in a very Gnosticdualistic sort of way.

Gresh brings this split out further in a later chapter, where she tells a story from her marriage where she considered herself to be owning her sexuality in her marriage in a positive way: one evening, she wore a somewhat sheer black top to the dinner table on a night when she and her husband were dining alone by candlelight. He checked her out across the table, and she congratulated herself and felt empowered. Essentially, she was exploring her ability to perform for her small audience’s male gaze and felt good about her success in catching his eye.

But again, this is about him and his arousal and her sexuality is entirely defined in reaction to or performing for his sexuality. He is the fixed point and she orbits him. It’s as if she has no sexuality outside of him, and while she is quite articulate about how women should not be ashamed of their bodies when they are with their husbands, she shows little capability of being aware of herself as a sexual being independent of her sexual relationship with her husband.

This is not a critique of Gresh or Slattery as individuals. Their stories happen to be very common, compared with the many I have heard and witnessed in my years in the church. Evangelical American Christians don’t have a framework for female sexuality that doesn’t start and stop with a husband’s penis. And I think this is ultimately why erotica is seen as a threat: it’s a primarily female-focused genre, and it explores female sexual pleasure in ways that are infrequently seen in our society.

Read the rest here.


If a divorced person told you he or she was worried about the wisdom of you marrying your fiancé[e], would you listen?

Or would you disqualify her advice because of her failure to make her marriage work? Even if she did everything right according to the Christian system and listened to her parents, waited to have sex until her wedding night, prayed exhaustively about the decision, and sought lots of counsel from pastors and mentors?

I am not going to be getting any brownie points among Christians for this piece, but this been driving me nuts and what else is my blog for?

Here is my best advice for good Christian kids looking to get married: have sex already.

I’m watching too many couples play Russian roulette with their lives because they aren’t listening to their gut instincts about who they want or need to spend their lives with because they happened to have found one person somewhat enchanting and willing to play the Christian marriage game and the stakes are: your whole future on this decision, made in the worst possible state of mind, horny celibacy.

Hermeneutically speaking, St. Paul’s “it’s better to marry than to burn with passion” was probably not about what you think it’s about. All my books are in storage in boxes, so I’d love to have someone with an accessible library help me out with citations here, but it’s pretty widely accepted in schools of theology that he was talking about couples disturbing idealistic celibate communities by sneaking off to have sex and making everyone feel either jealous and upset. As in: don’t be Gnostic, early church! It’s okay to not require celibacy of all Christians. C.f., Reasons why no one should ever be forced into celibate living against their will.  Not a lot of people have that gift, and that’s what Paul was acknowledging in that well-worn passage.

But what that passage doesn’t say (and honestly, what no passage in the Bible says) is “God’s best plan for your life is to be a virgin when you get married.” Seriously. Look for it. It’s not there. Two years ago a couple ex-fundy friends and I started hunting for it when we started to be troubled by why courtship was failing and why we were seeing so many unhappy marriages with good Christian kids like us who followed the rules. So we started searching the Bible ourselves and we haven’t found a much biblical basis for Christian purity culture and how it treats virginity and sexual experience.

There’s a whole lot about sex in the Bible, I learned. Most of it is dictated by the assumption that societies required clearly defined patriarchal lineage in order to operate (e.g., if your wife wasn’t a virgin when you married her, how would you know if her kids were yours and thus keep your family property and name in tact for the future?). Such things were very much a part of the historical period in which the Bible was written, but those things related to preservation of pure bloodlines are really irrelevant to our social order today. We can have healthy, happy communities without needing to be constantly in fear of the threat of a bastard child. Once that’s established, looking at the rest of the verses in the Bible about sex, it becomes evident that the sexual ethics laid out are essentially those of respecting each other and not abusing sex as a tool for power or domination or for revenge. It is, quite simply, an ethic of sexual behavior that values consent and human dignity and respect for social propriety within the context of an ancient patriarch-dominated culture.

If that was our culture today, it would be much more directly applicable, but that isn’t where and how we’re living. Today, we have a lot more freedom, a lot more ground gained in the realm of respecting diverse people groups and identities, and a lot less risk in terms of economic security and social honor riding on our sexual behavior.

Therefore I believe, based on my research, that it’s possible to have consensual, safe, and private sex* outside of marriage and not be transgressing any of the basic ethical guidelines for sexual behavior as laid out in the Bible.

But all that is just contextual framework for my primary point.

Christian culture over-values virginity at marriage so much that it heightens to an unreasonable degree the tension of an already momentous and risky decision. Marriage is, in a lot of ways, a jump off the cliff of adulthood that forces you to come face to face with yourself, and that’s when you find out just how much you can depend on yourself [to be mature and kind], without the parachute or training wheels of an easy exit. Most of us find as newlyweds that our selves aren’t really all that dependable, and we’re actually pretty selfish and immature.

Within Christian purity culture, sex, as an unknown and desirable thing (known to be powerful and good, but forbidden), necessarily becomes the bullet that we imagine blowing our brains out with if we pull the trigger at the wrong time, and we trick ourselves into believing that marriage will somehow protect us from spiritual suicide by pre-marital sex. We can’t know better if we’re still treating sex as a huge scary-and-wonderful unknown entity, but you’d think that our elders/wisers/more-experienced influencers would bother to let us in on the game before we sign on the dotted line.

But they don’t. Instead, pastors and parents and Bible study leaders and youth group mentors have bought into and perpetuated a false fundamental assumption that binds us to shame and ignorance as a necessary part of spiritual integrity: 1) we are required to take them at their word that sex is life-changing and terrible (in both senses of that word), and 2) we are required to make our trust in their definition of sex a fundamental assumption into how we weigh out relationships and how we decide who and when to marry. The bogey of sex thus becomes a looming question mark for us and the already-significant risks of choosing to get married to someone become exponentially more risky because there’s a huge piece of the marriage-choice puzzle that we are required to leave up to chance (which our good mentors have named God’s Will to keep us quiet).

Thus, when we good [read: virgin] Christian kids decide to accept this system, trusting our parents and pastors’ terms and wisdom, and denying ourselves basic understanding of ourselves as sexual beings (which we are, but they help us overlook this by telling us that perpetual fear and denial of sexuality is a form of healthy [and therefore godly] sexuality), sex as an unknown other becomes a non-factor in our choices for who we date and who and when we marry, or it becomes the secret but driving factor for who and when we marry. It must remain secret as a motive, because everyone knows that marrying just to have sex is a bad idea, but there is no other alternative for healthy, safe, and consensual sexual experience when we have bought into this system.

And if we are unlucky enough to be just a little too horny to effectively deny the existence of our sexuality until the approved time and place (the wedding night), we are caught in an impossible place where in order to keep being Good Christian Kids, we have to not question what our parents and pastors have told us—which is, essentially, that everything I just laid out in layman’s hermeneutics about biblical sexual ethics is lies and that God’s best plan for sexuality is total ignorance and total commitment to one person and one form of sexual experience forever and ever, amen—and to jump through all the Christian social hoops to land in bed with someone and not get ostracized or shamed for wanting to have sex in the first place

Or you just keep your head down and have sex and keep that part of your life so very secret and separate from your public social life, for fear of being found out for what you know they will think you are: a Bad Kid** with wanton desires and a sense of judgment that cannot be trusted.

So, in the end, if you want to be labeled a Good Christian Kid, you play by the rules that your parents and pastors have laid out for you, and inevitably (if you find another Good Christian Kid you like well enough, who likes you well enough, and who also agrees to play by the rules of this game) you’ll find yourself sitting somewhere with your boyfriend or girlfriend, and you’ll have a choice.

You’ll be just turned on enough with this person for the first time to realize that sex is probably something powerful (which means your parents and pastors must have been right, after all), and you’ll both be feeling it, and you’ll both realize that this situation can end in two ways: one, you follow the feeling and have sex and ruin your standing as a GCK in your own mind forever, even if no one ever finds out.  Or, two, you’ll indulge the feeling and fool around just enough to get scared of how good it feels and “put on the brakes” (a timeless analogy used by youth pastors everywhere, as if sex is a car rolling unobstructed toward a large and frightening cliff), which is to say: you stop and feel ashamed of yourself and look at your partner in crime and realize that no one can ever know except the two of you (because even a little sexual “sin” is enough to ruin your Good Christian Kid status), and that you are probably going to marry this person and you are probably going to be happy about it. Whether or not you really are happy doesn’t matter, because you’ve been practiced at denying parts of yourself (read: an accidental follower of Christian Gnosticism) for long enough that what’s one more thing? If you’re married, you’re going to be having sex, which means one less thing to ignore—and so your desire for real happiness can replace sexuality under the wraps of self-control and shame.

And then you’re trapped, because you let your pastors and parents think through your sexuality for you (which is such a bad idea, seeing as sexuality is such a unique and individual thing), and you got married because that was the only way to explore your sexuality and stay sane in the face of such overwhelming social pressure and potential shame, and if you’re really lucky you’ll both be moderately happy and mostly sexually compatible and have enough in common to make a pretty decent life out of a pretty bizarre and unbalanced decision.

But the chances of ending up with that ending to your story are pretty slim—and after my marriage ended, the stories of unhappy marriages launched on these terms started coming to me out of the woodwork. Our pastors and parents may adore Dannah Gresh, Josh Harris, and the Ludys, but those relationship and purity gurus are the lucky ones selling their stories through books and speaking events. They do not represent the vast majority of American Christians, and while they mean well, their idyllic solutions have shortchanged most people who bought into their system out of blind trust.

So, as a divorced woman who did everything right by the assumptions of that system and found that it was full of empty promises and bad hermeneutics, I dare you to think for yourself about your sexuality and your beliefs. Put down the gun—stop playing Russian roulette with your life on someone else’s word.

*Consent requires consent of all parties affected, so naturally, if you’re married and assuming that your marriage means exclusive sexual fidelity to your spouse, then you don’t cheat. Likewise if you’re in a relationship and the terms of the relationship mean that your girlfriend/spouse/partner/fiancé isn’t comfortable with you having close friendships with members of the gender that you’re attracted to sexually, then you honor those boundaries and act in a way that respects your partner’s comfort zone.

**In either scenario, young adults, who are pushed and urged to be mature and wise because that’s godly, are still socially seen and treated as children—and I think that, subconsciously, sexual experience functions as the only real coming of age signifier in this Christian subculture, which is an entirely different subject, but one that also ought to be scrutinized for bullshit.


Christian fundamentalism and Christian patriarchy hurt men too. I’m sobered and thankful for this guest post by my friend Tim. -h

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***

I have been avoiding this all day. All week. In one way or another, I’ve been avoiding this all my life.

Some of you may think you know me, but you don’t, not really. You know a version of me, meticulously maintained, that I’ve spent my life pretending to be. And I am afraid — so very afraid — that if I let that image fall, you won’t like what you see. I’m afraid you’ll laugh at me, that you’ll think I’m weak, foolish, unworthy of respect.

I’m a coward. I conform to what you expect of me. In middle school, I borrowed Les Miserables from the library and read it under the covers with a flashlight. I was caught up in the love of Marius and Cosette, immersed in the burning light of Jean Valjean’s redemption, broken at his justice and his sacrifice. When Valjean had his moment to kill Javert and be free, and spared him instead, my heart beat faster and my breath caught, my eyes filled with tears.

But I was a boy, and boys don’t like love stories.

When my hormones kicked in a few years later, I’d go back to the library for other reasons. I was homeschooled and had no internet, so I’d sneak copies of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition into the very back and covertly page through them, using a big atlas for cover. Once, my mom caught me at. She was silent all the way home, but it wasn’t five minutes after I got back to my room that my dad came knocking on my door.

“Men …” he said, standing awkwardly on the other side of my room, “are visual.” He paused, considered. “So be careful.”

In youth group, we’d periodically be divided up into boys and girls and get a talk from the youth pastor. Men are weak, I was told. If a woman shows any skin at all, we can’t help but think sinful thoughts, and so we should avert our eyes, flee temptation. The girls, I learned, were getting talks about purity and modesty. Our sin as men, they were told, was their responsibility. They just didn’t know, the pastor would say, what kind of effect they had on us.

So I went out into the world terrified. The first time I was ever in a room alone with a girl — at the tender age of eighteen — I couldn’t speak for fear of having lustful thoughts about her. My years of religious upbringing had taught me that all women were potential objects of lust; for me, that made all women actual objects to fear. If a girl had the nerve to wear a two-piece swimsuit or a low-cut top around me, I’d get tense, then ashamed, then cold — my whole upbringing told me that women dressed for men (‘why would you even wear a bikini,’ the arch old church ladies would say, ‘if you weren’t looking for attention?’), and that meant that my lustful thoughts were being done to me.

I met my first girlfriend at a little Evangelical university on the east coast. We never had sex, but we made out and fumbled in the dark like teenagers, and I was ashamed. Not because I felt it was wrong — no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that it was — but because it was improper. Because it would be frowned upon by my community. Because it would make them think less of me. So I distanced myself from my girlfriend, cooled my feelings for her. When we broke up over Christmas break, I told myself that the wrench in my heart was only temporary, that I didn’t care that much one way or the other. I settled into a comfortable numbness, the crash of feeling fading to a niggling static in the background of my soul.

The following year, I went traveling for three months on my own, and my world fell apart around me. My faith crumbled. I had sex for the first time, with a beautiful black-haired girl in a sunlit room above a theater, and despite my efforts to keep my distance, a bit of my heart tore away with her as well. When I left on a ferry a week later, I sat for hours watching the sun sink into the Mediterranean, and wrote a poem to her, cramped by my awkward self-consciousness, that I never sent. A week after that I’d justified it away again, rationalized it away with chemicals and hormones and all of the catch-phrases we use to hide from human connection when we’ve lost our belief in sin.

I found new things to be ashamed of. I was afraid of impotence, of being too quick, of not being good enough, of the nakedness of my mind and my soul that comes with sex, and again, I blamed women. If I felt bad, it was because they were making me feel bad. If I felt insecure, it was because they were failing to comfort me.

When I got back, I declared my apostasy and got kicked out of school for it. A friend came to me, tears in her eyes and voice unsteady, and stammered that though it broke her heart to lose me to eternity, she understood and still liked me, and I looked at her pain and felt helpless, then cold. Who was she to care about me, and about the choices I made? I gave her a hug and said goodbye.

Telling myself I was building a new life, that I was open and adventurous, a free-thinker, I continued to repress my emotions, continued to be afraid of women and what they could do to me, continued to be afraid that people might not like me or respect me. If I couldn’t conform, I’d become arrogant; if they were beneath me, their judgment of me was irrelevant. Emotion was for the weak, and religion was for suckers.

Eight months later, I sold everything I owned, moved out of my apartment, and headed east, to travel full-time. My life was a comfortable emotional flatline; I just didn’t feel much, I told myself, outside of the excitement of intellectual pursuits. Friends couldn’t care about me, women couldn’t touch me, and I was protected from any genuine connection by impregnable inner walls. My persona was impressive, bolstered by a few well-placed real talents, and I enjoyed introducing it to new people and new places, grew uncomfortable the longer I stayed, afraid that they might see the real me under all the pretense.

Then I met someone who, for the first time, challenged me. She could see through the pretense, could see the emotion under all my careful repression, and she called me on it. She infuriated me, in a bemused kind of way, and deeply unsettled me. It wasn’t until we parted ways at a bus station that I realized I was in love with her.

It was six months before I saw her again, and during that time I thought about her every day. I constructed a story of my life, wrote a part for her; this emotionally brilliant, beautiful, talented girl who could drag me out of my impassivity, who I could show off (I must be great, I would think, in my fantasies, because I’m with *her*), who I could tell my ideas to so that she could tell me how great they were. She was my imaginary Heinlein girlfriend, talented enough to be worthy of me; she was my manic pixie dream girl, destined to set me free.

We met again in Paris as friends; later, we started dating. She was gentle with me, easing me ever so slowly out of my sexual and emotional insecurities, and I was happy. She was fulfilling her role exactly as scripted.

But, as the months passed, she began to become frustrated, and then angry, for reasons I couldn’t understand. Our fights would leave me baffled, hurt, afraid, small, and no matter how hard I resisted, I’d hate her a little for it. She was ruining everything. She was pushing me away. I loved her so much that I cried, and I hated her, too, for making me feel so much.

She began to tell me that maybe she wasn’t good for me, that maybe she was hurting me by staying, and I’d get angry, then ashamed, then cajoling, saying stay, stay, I’ll figure it out, I’ll fix it, and then we’ll be happy. Thinking to myself, I’ll figure out whatever it is you want, and do that. I’ll do emotions and vulnerability, if that’s what you want from me. And then I’d find myself failing, feel ashamed, grow cold and distant, the same old cycle playing itself out in its most soul-tearing iteration yet.

And every so often I’d open my eyes, just briefly, to *her* experience, and it would break my heart. She was in so much pain, and I had no idea why. I hated myself for that, and that self-hatred took me and pulled me back into my self-absorption, leaving her alone once again.

I found myself becoming increasingly insecure around her. She was so strong, so confident, so *alive;* she made me feel small and afraid just by being, and smaller the more I hurt her. The same things that had made me fall in love with her now terrified me, so that I flinched away from them, tried to pretend they didn’t even exist.

At the same time, began trying more and more to control everything. If she wanted to do something, I’d say it was a bad idea. If we went anywhere, I’d want to lead the way. If we talked, it’d be about what I wanted to talk about, and if she offered anything other than unquestioning support, I’d feel insulted and insecure and I’d shut myself down to her, giving her nothing but the unfeeling blankness of my walls. It didn’t matter if she cried or if she shouted; I was so closed to her I might as well have been squeezing my eyes shut and clamping my hands over my ears. It felt like my heart was breaking every day, a chisel pounded in by every fight and every bout of my depression and self-hatred and resentment.

I came to think of myself as a split person; my emotional self, a child, hidden behind the protective wall of my persona, banging to get out but as unable to breach the walls from within as she was from without. It wasn’t until she gave up, until she said she was leaving, that I managed to break free and run to her, to cling to her, trembling, terrified of losing her and terrified that I couldn’t do anything about it. I would cry, kiss, love, and the world would be full of feeling and sensation and beauty, and as soon as the danger passed, I would clamp down again with a vengeance, ashamed of my openness and my emotion.

Every time it was worse, and every moment of openness was shorter than the last. I was so afraid for my perceived self that I couldn’t open myself to her, and so afraid of losing her that it broke me not to.

And finally, finally, in a conversation that lasted until sunrise, my persona began to break down. I began to see the cracks in it. I began to understand, truly, that I was a coward, afraid of living my life, afraid of showing myself to her or to anyone else. I saw that, for our whole relationship, I had been thinking of her as an adjunct to my life, a sort of sidekick, there to make me look good and feel good. I had been thinking of her as less than me, and I had been terrified that maybe, in fact, she was much more.

I realized, in a heart-breaking flash of open conversation with her, that despite all my talk of feminism and liberality and egalitarianism, I was deeply insecure, and deeply sexist. If she criticised my ideas as a friend and an equal, if she talked to me about money, if she questioned my approach to realizing my dreams, if she questioned what I had, even as an atheist, always assumed was my God-given authority, I would resent her for it.

I fell in love with her for her strength, her independence, and her authenticity, and I had fantasized about showing her off for those same reasons — as a conquest, an achievement, a mark of status by which I could earn respect from other men. But she was strong. She was independent. She was authentic. And if it killed her, she would never submit, to me or to anyone else.

When I saw that, as the sun was just beginning to lighten the eastern sky, I broke down with love for her. I told her how afraid I was that I couldn’t be strong, couldn’t be real, in the way she was. I wanted desperately to love her as an equal; to walk the world with her, to lend my hand to her dreams as she lent hers to mine, to twine our independent lives together rather than trying to graft her onto me.

All of my pent up resentment of her, hatred of her, boiled away in that flash of understanding. I was left humbled in its wake, naked and ashamed, my eyes open to what I had been, to what I still was. Weak. Cowardly. And this time, I held nothing back. There were no false words of comfort, no false promises. No hiding from myself. I had spent my life behind walls, behind a facade of competency and professional distance. I told her the truth; that I didn’t know if I was strong enough to let them down.

We parted ways the next day with a last kiss on a train station platform, neither of us sure what would happen next, holding each other tightly in a little pocket of us as a hundred people moved past us. I watched her board, and I was broken inside, brought down to dust on the foundations of my soul. She looked back at me for an instant and my heart caught, and then she was gone.

I stood there alone, wanting to push the emotion of it away, wanting to distance myself from it and from her, but instead I let myself feel, let the tears flow, let the fear of my failure fill me alongside my hope. And I knew at once that I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough to live a true life, but that one way or another, I would die trying.

My name is Tim Raveling, and I am a sexist. I am a coward. I am a conformist. I am broken inside, more capable of pettiness and spite than anything noble. I am terrified to live, terrified to show myself to the world, terrified to feel deeply and uncompromisingly. But my eyes are open, and I know one thing to be true: what happens next is my choice.

Who am I?

I am human.

I am free.


When one of my friends starts dating someone exclusively, I like to ask questions, to capture in my head not just the story of how he asked her out or how she warmed up to him, but to understand the essence, the thingness of what makes their new relationship attractive to them. What do you like about him? Why’d you say yes to a date? What about her makes you want to spend time with her?

I’m a collector of stories, of people, of ideas. I soak it up. There is so much to the world and I want to understand things.

I get some really interesting answers to these questions. And I’ve given some really interesting answers to friends asking me similar questions, too.

One thing that gets me a lot, that makes me feel a little hollow inside and worry, is when I hear a man or a woman bragging about their significant other unduly much, and when I hear him or her saying things like “s/he’s just so good to me!” whenever he or she talks about the person they’re seeing. 

I promise I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I promise I’m not thinking of anyone in particular. And I promise, that what I’m about to say is not a universal thing. But I have noticed some trends, and I think it’s worth talking about it.

You see, when you’ve grown up in the conservative Christian world and hope to save your first everythings for your forever other, you put a lot of pressure on yourself to get it right the first time. To not get your heart broken. To push through hard things as a couple and make it work, dammit. I have good taste in men, really. He just needs to grow up. She’s not always like that–she’s really good to me! Just trust me. I’ve got this. We’re happy. 

Once you have this pressure on yourself from yourself (maybe you got to third base with this guy and you are ashamed and just want to marry him so it can be okay and romantic, instead of Potential Mistake And Regret For Lost Purity, or maybe you’re just afraid of heartbreak and being alone), it sets you up for codependence. Or it can, if both parties are subscribers to this way of thinking.

Codependence thrives on fear of loss. This is my realization of the week. Codependence has to have the potential absence or loss of the enabler, the person you’re dependent upon for emotional stability. You don’t notice your codependency until the security blanket is threatened. Once it’s threatened, you feel manic, naked, offended, and you may become possessive and jealous, or you may become cold and aloof and self-sustained, passive-aggressively determined to make the other miss you and make them come back to you.

I’ve played both sides of this game. I’ve seen it modeled for me over and over when I was growing up, and I’ve been slowly loosening the claw-grips of these emotional habits from my head and heart. Facing my deepest fears this year, against my will, was my personal Eustace-the-dragon moment. I couldn’t pick off scabs of codependency thoroughly, because I was afraid of how much it would hurt, and when my ex ripped himself out of my life in a matter of days, I was suddenly on the other side and codependency (what little was left after trying hard to unlearn it for two years) wasn’t something I could wean myself away from anymore. I had to quit, cold turkey.

And then I realized something. Yes, I loved him. Had been in love, still am working out the fact that you never really stop loving someone even after it’s over, and it was real, for me at least. But it was also childish in a lot of ways, and there were things that I had grown accustomed to about our relationship that were cramping me in unhealthy ways. Not in the sense of “he cramps my style,” because he didn’t. But there were things about who I am that literally had no place in our relationship. Things that defined me for ages before I met him, things that were always going to be part of me, but things I neglected to “fit” him better. I don’t mean this in a cheesy-finding-myself-better-off-without-him way at all.

What I mean is: I wasn’t done growing up when I met him, and started dating him, and did the Hard Thing and Made Things Work and sacrificed a ton to be there for him and be the right sort of girl for him. Initially this was smothering, and we talked it out and I learned how to not trip-fall-run all over myself to bring all these subservient and codependent emotional habits I thought were good things that would make him feel loved and make us closer. Our relationship had some really good times, and the best of these were when I was taking care of myself, not trying too hard to be there and be everything he needed, and when we treated each other like equals, with respect. When our relationship was at it’s healthiest, there was no sense of possession/possessing/being possessed by the other. There was give and take, but we were most whole and united because we were individuals being open with each other, as individuals. Without being afraid of loss of companionship or love, or autonomy and personal voice. But the thing is, it never lasted. It wasn’t safe like that most of the time, for either of us, for lots and lots of complex reasons.

And so, I see in my own story, that sweet teenage, godly girl bragging on her first boyfriend, “he’s so good to me! he got me this thing I needed when I had a rough day!” and I hear that young Christian guy talking about how wonderful his sweetheart is in all the right ways and how he never wants to lose her, and I feel sad. What if their story is like mine? What if they’re afraid of getting it wrong, so they force the first one to be the right one? What if they settle for someone who’s good, because they don’t know what they’re missing because they’re afraid to lose what they have?

This agonizing existential question is what my ex chased after, leaving me behind. It’s a real question, and it’s worth asking. But being afraid to ask it when you’re dating, when you’re engaged, when you’re so infatuated with the newness of everything sexual–this is the coward’s path. You feel the stakes are so high because they are emotionally so high.

But the mean little secret is: breakups suck, but you’ll live and it gets better. Being afraid of these questions isn’t worth stuffing them deep down in the back of your internal emotional landscape until they become so pressingly real and you can’t ignore them anymore, but you’re married and it’s too late.

Ask the hard questions. Do the harder thing. Don’t force it to work; face your fears instead. Don’t keep dating her because she’s a godly Christian girl and fits the list. Don’t say yes to him because he’s good enough and you don’t have any other options.

Being single isn’t that awful of a fate. Being married isn’t a heaven that will erase all your tensions and private lonelinesses.

[and please, if you’re single and lonely and reading this, don’t take this too much to heart. you’re held in Love’s arms. don’t tell me i wouldn’t say this if i knew how lonely it is to be single and face those hard things on your own. i know. we’ll be okay.]

 

 

 


When I posted about Dannah Gresh’s concerning (and poorly composed) chapel sermon at Grove City College on Tuesday, I figured I wouldn’t get much response.

I guess I assumed that most Christian leaders are like those I grew up with — ensconced in their own success and emotionally unmovable when criticized rightly. Pastors and teachers I encountered along my path were usually those who would listen gravely to what you had to say, and then effectively smile and pat you on the head with some platitude or smooth response, and never really hear your hurt or perspective. There was no empathy or genuine concern about how they affected people. Usually, what got their attention was the threat of bad PR, not a hurting individual.

Since then, I’ve learned that there are good pastors. The pastor who cared for me during my last two years of college, the pastor who’s been praying for me as I work through hard personal things right now, the professors at Grove City who have a ministerial relationship with the students under their watch. These individuals (with their relatively small spheres of influence) have given me a lot of hope, personally.

But when it came to those with big public ministries, I retained my cynicism. From where I sit, I have observed that fame does things to people. It looks like it’s easy to be wrapped up in the numbers and the tour and the new topic or book and forget that there are real people receiving and engaging with your message. That people are sometimes basing their whole spiritual life on your ideas and what you say deeply impacts the decisions they make and the way they live. I think it’s for this reason that James reminded his audience that teachers will be judged more strictly.

So. When I posted yesterday, I didn’t know what to expect, but I certaintly didn’t expect Dannah Gresh to personally respond. And I never expected her to respond with gentleness and apology, with an attitude of “please let me make this right.” But I thought I’d at least make sure she was aware we were talking about her message, and I posed this on her Facebook fan page:

FB dannah gresh

I didn’t think she’d respond. I sort of half-assumed she’d even delete the post. But she didn’t delete it and she did respond to me.

And, oh my. This gives me hope for the Church in new ways. Here’s her comment (she posted the same comment on Shaney’s piece, though not on Dianna’s):

dannah gresh comment

Not long after the comment went up, I received an email from her with an invitation to talk over the phone and continue the conversation. We’ve corresponded briefly, and she’s for real. This isn’t a stop-the-bad-blogs-from-talking-about-me move. This is a real, heartfelt desire to avoid the rape culture elements of the Christian purity movement and a sincere attempt at engaging us here.

I’m excited to see where this goes. She still hasn’t addressed Dianna’s concerns about her use of the word Hebrew word “ahava” (which, to be fair, I’m not educated enough to seriously address the nuances of the translation) and the rape of Dinah, but I’m hopeful that she will.

The purity movement is so well-intended, but it’s strayed into legalism and modesty checklists and straw man caricatures of feminism and blaming the victim. This is not okay. But perhaps there’s some hope for addressing these issues, after all?

***

A further clarification for those who felt like her story was certainly hyperbole (which it did turn out to be) and that those criticizing her sermon were “nitpicking” — words mean things. You can’t excuse someone’s careless words on assuming the best about their intent when they have such a big public presence. If she said it in a public forum, it’s up for public discussion, and it’s her job to communicate clearly to avoid sending the wrong message about abuse.

I know we’re all Christians and it’s a good impulse to try to be nice about things, but that’s not appropriate in situations like these, where she was speaking to (guessimating based on my years attending GCC chapels) an audience of 500-700 students and is regularly publishing mainstream Christian books and leads a multi-level ministry to young people of various ages and helps run a blog about  these topics. Statistically speaking, there are those who were in her audience on Tuesday morning who are currently in abusive relationships or have experienced abuse, and without her clarification, the message they heard was “don’t be needy,” “don’t fall in love,” and “being thrown against a wall is okay if your partner really loves you.”

This is why her clarification and engagement with our concerns is so, so important and encouraging.

Thank you, Dannah. Let’s keep talking.


Harbison Chapel, Grove City College

<< Please see the update on this situation here. >>

 While I may have some mixed feelings about elements of the institution that is my alma mater, I admit, I am quite fond of Grove City College. It’s a good place with good people. I am grateful for everyone there who invested in me and for the time I had in that community.

But as an alumna, I have to say something when this Tuesday’s chapel speaker told a story about intimate partner violence and called it an example of agape love with no qualifications.

That is wrong.

Here’s the quote, transcribed from the audio file (click to listen!) by Dianna Anderson. The sermon (message? talk?) was only about 20 minutes long, but Dannah Gresh packed a lot into that time. This is the part that concerns me the most:

In the New Testament, there’s a more familiar word that you’re probably [pause] aware of…the word ‘agape.’ The Love of God or Christ for humankind, unselfish love of one person for another, without sexual implication. Brotherly love. A love feast.

There’s a lot of sisters in the room right now looking for some brotherly love. They just don’t know that’s what they need.

….

[Quotes Ephesians 5:25, claims agape is the type of love a husband extends to his wife, says that if men are not willing to “step up,” they are not ready for love]

“And here’s the thing, as I was looking over my dating years with my husband, as we were college students. I remember one very distinct time. I was thinking ‘when were the times that he expressed agape love to me?’ I could think of a lot of really neat ones, but I thought of one that was probably harder for him than all the rest.

You see, we had recently gotten engaged and I was living in an apartment and going to summer school so I could finish up a little early – not that I was in a hurry to get married or anything. And he came to see me. And we hadn’t seen each other for months and we missed each other very much. And it probably took one fifth of a second when he was inside of that apartment for us to realize we were really in love. And we found ourselves horizontal on the sofa. And it really wasn’t okay. You get the picture.

But it lasted about a second and before I knew it, my fiancé picked me up off the sofa, threw me against the wall, and ran outside of my apartment.

[awkward laughter]

Yes, I felt horribly rejected.

[more laughter]

But I brushed myself off and I walked outside and I said “What was that?”

And he said, opening the car door, “Get in, we need a chaperone. I can’t be alone with you. We’re going to Professor Haffy’s house.”

[more laughter]

And we spent the weekend in one of our professor’s homes.

That’s agape.

So, I know what she meant. She meant that if you’re crossing moral lines with your significant other, it’s self-sacrificially loving (agape) to help uphold standards or take the high road and stop whatever questionable activity (which may cause sin or be sin…it’s not clear) for the sake of everyone involved. This is generally common sense, though her assumptions about what is and isn’t right here are questionable and, worse, vague.

But what she essentially said is this: premarital sex or lust is worse than intimate partner violence. Or in other words: it’s okay to abuse your girlfriend if it’s going to keep you from having sex with her before getting married.

She could have chosen to qualify this story, to comment, “now, throwing me against a wall was WRONG and he would never do that now,” or something similarly clarifying. But she did not do that. 

And by having Dannah up there in the College-endorsed Harbison Chapel pulpit on a Tuesday morning when students are given chapel credit for listening to this talk, Grove City College is complicit in this endorsement until they state otherwise.

I tweeted at the College’s Twitter account yesterday and was retweeted by others about this, and the feed manager has yet to respond. I assume that they’re busy or someone’s on vacation, because this should not be a difficult question. The College should be able to quickly and easily respond to this, as should anyone else who heard the talk.

Throwing your fiancée up against a wall is abusive and wrong and never okay for anyone, Christian or non-Christian.

I have a host of other problems with this talk — how Gresh is illiterate about what “feminism” and “chauvinism” mean, how her bad use of Hebrew, Greek, and her proof-texting make her a living straw man argument against having women teaching in the church. How her invalidation of emotions for women (and her silence on men with emotions of their own) was appalling and insensitive (and next door to gaslighting). How she mistakenly argued that Dinah’s rape was an example of love. How silly the ending illustration was.

But these are just symptoms of ignorance.

Stating that intimate partner violence is “agape” love is inexcusable.  It’s dangerous and wrong. This is the stuff that has the potential to damage lives forever. 

Grove City College, I’m calling you out. You’re better than this. Make this right.

——–
Check out this post by Shaney in response to Dannah’s talk. A post by Dianna on this is also forthcoming here.


My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


And we’re baaaack. Commonplace links went away when I stopped reading blogs for a month or so.

This week there’s been a fantastic rash of posts on virginity and Christian culture, and I’m really excited that this is being discussed.

I have been hesitant to say so, but I have become increasingly convinced that the concept of virginity is a concept created for male power/social control and not a medical or spiritual reality (and for those suffering from homeschool sex-ed or abstinence-only sex-ed and don’t know what I mean by this, go watch Laci Green explain). I have also discovered that the Bible really isn’t clear on the question: is consensual premarital sex between two consenting, adult, and committed individuals sinful? Instead it seems to suggest that sexuality is wonderful and powerful and deeply intimate (and therefore either so very good or so very damaging), and that God’s best plan is for sex to be a safe place for mutual benefit and love and pleasure and possibly procreation. Marriage is logically the place where this can best happen, but there’s no indication that it’s the only place it can happen. 

[That is what I think. We can disagree.]

So, here’s the best posts on virginity that I’ve read this week. Go read and ponder and soak up the grace.

Virginity: New & Improved — Elizabeth Esther

Whenever we seek to improve upon virtue, we are actually creating an idol. Furthermore, by elevating virginity to the ethereal realms of unicorns and angels, we place an unfair burden upon the shoulders of real, human beings.

And that’s what concerns me the most. The New & Improved Virginity places a heavy weight of shame upon women—even those whoare virgins.

I was a virgin and I didn’t feel “pure enough”  because I’d kissed a couple boys before my husband. I was a virgin and I felt horribly defiled because I’d discovered this crazy, secret thing called masturbating. I was a virgin and I was disappointed to realize that my ‘sacrifice’ didn’t automatically result in a happily ever after marriage.

I was a virgin and I felt superior to “damaged” women. The purity culture showed no compassion for me so I had no compassion for myself or women who had “chosen” to “give away” their virtue.

I am damaged goods — Sarah Bessey at Deeper Story

And so here, now, I’ll stand up and say it, the way I wish someone had said it to me fifteen years ago when I was sitting in that packed auditorium with my heart racing, wrists aching, eyes stinging, drowning and silenced by the imposition of shame masquerading as ashes of repentance:

“So, you had sex before you were married.

It’s okay.

Really. It’s okay.

There is no shame in Christ’s love. Let him without sin cast the first stone. You are more than your virginity – or lack thereof – and more than your sexual past.

Your marriage is not doomed because you said yes to the boys you loved as a young woman. Your husband won’t hold it against you, he’s not that weak and ego-driven, choose a man marked by grace.

And the coup de grace, delivered by Emily Maynard at Prodigal — The day I turned in my v-card

I’m done blanketing all sexual experience outside of marriage as sin and never acknowledging that abuse can happen within a marriage. I’m done with Christians enforcing oppression in the name of purity.

I am not a virgin or a non-virgin.

I am a human. I am Emily.